On March 13, 2017, Carol Christ wrote on this “Feminism and Religion” blog:
“When I made the decision to leave Christianity rather than to work within it to transform it, I believed that rational judgments were primary. Now I am much more cognizant of the complex ways in which questions of identity, family history, ethnicity, class, community, and exclusion shape our decisions to leave or to stay. I think we need to talk more about this.”
I agree with Carol. This is an important subject to ponder as we think and write about the choices we make regarding the faith traditions we either inherited or belonged to at one point or another during our lives.
I just finished re-reading Joanna Brooks’ memoir, THE BOOK OF MORMON GIRL. Raised Mormon in an insular family in a “tract house on the edge of the orange groves” near San Diego, California, Joanna learned, and felt, early on that salvation meant “belonging,” tied to people who believed as her family and their Mormon ancestors did, “safe where no one would say your books of scripture are all made up.”
The stories that shaped Joanna early on in her life all “arrived at the same conclusions: the wayfarer restored, the sick healed, the lost keys found, a singular truth confirmed.” She wants to tell “orthodox Mormon stories,” yet “these are not the kinds of stories life has given me.”
Joanna struggles. “What do we do when the church of our childhoods no longer treasures our names?” She cannot throw away “the beautiful stories of angels at the bedside, [and] holy books buried in the American hillsides.” She eventually realizes, “I must make and tell my own version of the Mormon story.” Her memoir is an unorthodox Mormon story.
Joanna envisions a time when there will be “room at the table” for everybody—gays, lesbians, her Jewish husband, Idaho farm boys on their missions, all Mormon girls—her list goes on and on. She writes, “This is a church inhabited by people willing to give up their own children for being gay. This is also the church of Millie Watts and the church of my grandmothers. This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human failings. There is no unmixing the two.” She cannot turn her back on it all.
I grew up within Christianity. Unlike Joanna, though, I never felt a sense of belonging fellowshipping alongside the “brethren” within an obscure branch of Christendom on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a bustling metropolitan city, where we were admonished to “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (John 4:35). My parents were fundamentalist missionaries, eager to “win souls for the Lord” through evangelizing the “heathen.” My mother struggled as she tried to balance her job to “win souls” and her job to protect and nurture her children. She was torn, and like all of us, made choices and decisions based on what light she had at the time.
Today, I do not identify as Christian. But yet, the stories that shaped me—Biblical stories of an angry God wiping out “enemies,” prophets likening the straying of the Israelite people to “whoredom,” and Jesus speaking in cryptic parables so only “those who had ears to hear” could understand—have given me a prism through which to see the world. And even though I refuse to consciously look through that particular prism anymore, what was created at one time remains—even if only as a familiar keepsake.
I tried hard to make the stories and their interpretations by “great men of the faith” work for me. Doctrine derived from the stories such as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit and Mary becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit failed to either inspire or comfort me. In fact, the orthodox way to understand the stories had nothing whatsoever to do with me—women dragging men down (Eve) and women passively accepting their fate (Mary). For years, though, I attempted to chisel myself into a shape that fit the story, hoping to eventually belong. I thought the fault was within me. I now know better. As is the case with those people who are marginalized by a dominant voice, we realize — if we’re lucky — that stories spawned in patriarchal institutions like the Church, grow and develop within an experiential milieu that is not ours, but expected to be ours. I was expected to robe myself in the orthodoxy of my oppressors.
And yet, as I write this, the Biblical story of David and Goliath (I Samuel 17: 38-39) comes to mind:
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.
David was unable to fight [kill the enemy Goliath] in the conventional way. I loathe this imagery. Instead, David kills Goliath with a simple slingshot. David acted in a way that served his own needs, not by doing what King Saul expected. David resisted—went against the grain. The story of resistance becomes an orthodox story. However, were I to use this story as a model to behave in ways that challenge “the king,” I would be met with scorn and resistance. “You’re interpreting Scripture incorrectly.”
Women in patriarchal institutions and societies, such as ours, cannot accomplish what many of us have learned we must do — forging community through giving a place at the table to all, for starters — using the tools/armor of the patriarchal dominant culture. When we attempt to do so, we get accused of using the tools improperly as the patriarchy wrests them from our hands. We become alienated.
I eventually realized there was no room at the table for me. Once that light dawned, leaving the community was easy. Unlike Joanna, I never felt as though I really belonged anyway.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.